Episode 24: Afghanistan: The US Pivot, Sharing Danger & The Importance Of Cultural Intelligence Part II

Amb. McCarthy: (00:09) Welcome to part two of The General and the Ambassador Podcast with General John R. Allen and Ambassador Jim Cunningham on their partnership in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. Gentlemen, our engagement in Afghanistan has also meant the loss of many, many fine soldiers and some of our diplomats. How did you exercise what I would call compassionate leadership in the midst of war and tragedy and what did you learn from each other in those difficult times?

Gen. Allen: (00:39) I lost 561 troops in Afghanistan and 5,400 were wounded. I think about them every day. I'd wait till the end of the day to write the letters to the families. The letters to the children were always the hardest. I went out a number of times on patrols to recover the remains of some of my troops were killed. There's something called a ramp ceremony and I know our ambassadors joined me in this on a number of occasions where we, with all possible dignity, carry the remains up the back ramp of a transport aircraft and place it on the airplane, send it home. it's hard to explain the feeling you have in your stomach because you know that that young man or woman has just given their life for something much bigger than themselves and they gave it without hesitation and you're going to put their remains on an airplane, which is going to fly away in a few minutes and it's going to change the lives of a family at home forever. I'll never forget one evening, an engineer unit in one of the organizations I had, in one of the eastern provinces got hit very hard in an ambush and a young engineer was killed, a number of engineers, Army engineers, were killed. And we were of course sending his remains home. And what I didn't know at the beginning of the ramp ceremony was that his wife was in an adjacent engineer unit in the same command. As we were going through the ceremony on the airplane of the last salute, she broke down and throw herself onto the coffin and was calling his name, ripping the flag, holding onto the coffin, calling his name over and over again. I said to my command afterwards, we don't often see that. Here's this moment of truth, this young family, he's been killed and she's been with him in war, in combat, and this emotion, this outpouring of emotion was something that was singularly significant to me. And so I spent a lot of time at ramp ceremonies. There were some folks who said, I spent too much time at ramp ceremony. Frankly, you can't spend enough time at ramp ceremonies. And the one thing, Jim, I'm maybe taking his thunder on this thing, but the one thing that I was so deeply grateful for was that when we walked up the back ramp of that airplane, the diplomats were always with us too. Because it wasn't just an American military, soldier or whatever the service was that was going home, or in fact the British or the Polish troops or the French troops. They were members of the coalition and they were youngsters who had come from their homes and had given everything to this cause and diplomats and military leaders lined up and paid tribute in equal measure to these youngsters.

Amb. Cunningham: (03:16) It's a very sobering experience, if you haven't been through that sort of thing before, and I had not. I lost several members of my staff during my time there. Some others were wounded in attacks. For an embassy. It's a blow when a member of your team is killed for whatever reason is, as you know, but it's particularly rough in a combat situation, where you know the risks that you run. Anytime many one of us goes into the field, you know that there's a risk, but we have such confidence in our security arrangements and in our military partners who provide security for American diplomats in the field when they were out there together. It's a shock when something goes wrong. I thought it was important to go to the ramp ceremonies for everyone who gave their lives there. They all did it as part of the same effort to achieve something. The civilians and the military lived and worked together as partners. One of the most moving things that I experienced when I was there, we had a young aid worker in a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Nangarhar province who was killed in a suicide bomb attack. So right after this happened, after we got this guy on his way back home to his family, I went down there as quickly as I could and met with my team members, the civilians, to hear them out, tell them that we cared about them, the survivors, some of them had been wounded as well. But the moving thing was that there was a Navy Commander who was the commander of the local PRT who came up to me afterwards and said, "you know, we're trained for this stuff and we know how to deal with it, but we're really impressed with how your people manage this because we know you're not trained to do this. We admire the courage and dedication of your team, the people who are here with us doing this." And that was I think, a really important comment to make, for which I was always grateful because every day when I got up and I directly or indirectly approved orders for people moving around the country or doing various projects or taking on new roles, I knew that I was also telling you to go out there and risk your life. And they were incredibly glad to do it. They really were. The thing is you believe in, you're doing something that's bigger than yourself. I quietly tried to encourage the view that there are things worth taking risk for. It's a good thing to do that. Again, I think that's something that a lot of our colleagues in the diplomatic corps and the civilian service internalized over the years, and one of the reasons why people keep signing up to go back and do that kind of important work because they think it's better than sitting at a desk someplace typing out a briefing memo to somebody.

Gen. Allen: (05:52) Let me also add that Jim and his predecessors and his successors were right there with us. You know, they shared the risk right alongside us and I think one of the reasons why, as I travel around the world, when people say thank you for your service, I always take the time publicly say, let me just make one qualifying point. There's this organization out there called the Foreign Service, and members of our diplomatic corps and the Foreign Service and that people that work for the State Department are out there every single day at the very outer edge of American influence, in some very, very dangerous places. And they're unarmed, by and large, although they have protection, they are unarmed and they go forth every day, as Jim said, to accomplish the mission of American diplomacy in whatever form it takes that day and their individual courage is hugely admirable. And we in the service also pay tribute to the Foreign Service and our diplomats and those of the State Department who risk themselves every day. Jim alluded to it a moment ago, and I'll make the specific point, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, a whole generation of young officers, young Foreign Service Officers and young intelligence officers, sweating in 130 degrees inside an armored vehicle sitting next to each other, shared the experience of war for years. And I don't think yet, this country has any idea how in 10-15 years when they become very senior leaders and senior diplomats and senior intelligence officers, how that shared moment of danger, that shared common mission is going to be good for America.

Amb. McCarthy: (07:24) Today we have another effort at negotiating a settlement in Afghanistan with the new Special Envoy, Ambassador Khalilzad. How do you assess the prospects for these talks?

Amb. Cunningham: (07:36) They've certainly got a steep hill to climb, but he's the, I think, the right person for the job for a variety of reasons, including his own deep experience of the culture and the language and the people that he's dealing with. There are signs that this might be the beginning of a serious discussion. There's still not an open or a visible road towards an actual negotiation on the details of what a peace settlement would look like, but at least there are what seem to be serious discussions underway. I think one of the challenges for Ambassador Khalilzad will be he's got to find a way to advance American interests, advance or preserve Afghan interests, not through direct discussions but through how he handles his own discussions with the Taliban. There's a great deal of sensitivity in Kabul among people in the government and Afghans themselves about how the Americans are going to handle a situation in which the American President has declared his desire to leave, even as he has adopted a strategy, which I think is the correct strategy, of trying to use multiple levers of American influence to create the conditions for a serious negotiation. That's actually something that we haven't fully tried to do because as we had been conducting this discussion, so much our energy for the last two years that I was in Afghanistan, perhaps even longer than that, so much of our energy was devoted to the withdrawal that there wasn't really a full blown effort to look at the problem from the other direction and say, what do we need to do to get a negotiation to work? That discussion taking place, we might have come to a different set of conclusions about how to handle a military withdrawal. Because once it became clear that President Obama was determined to leave Afghanistan, there was no incentive for the Taliban to have any serious discussion. Indeed, that's what happened, they sat there and they waited and then as soon as most of the American troops were withdrawn at the end of 2014, beginning of 2015, they pushed hard and they pushed into the Afghans who were by then been doing most of the fighting. They pushed hard into them to try to see if they could crack the Afghan security forces and crack the Afghan government at the time, new government, and that was entirely predictable. It was not realistic to think that there could be serious negotiations under those circumstances. Now I think, I hope, that there is a chance and if the administration will display the patience and determination required and bring the influence to bear to use all the power that we and our many partners, don't forget them they all have an interest in this too. We're in Afghanistan with the EU, 50 nations, the UN, the World Bank. That's a lot of actors who can influence a lot of things if their actions have a goal and if they're coordinated. And I think that's the diplomatic task now, is to bring all of our, not just military force, but our diplomatic force to bear to try to create the battlefield, if you were, for negotiations. There are a lot of people working on this right now. The Trump administration has been handicapped by not fulfilling the policy positions in Washington and in the field to have the people and the intellect and the policy sense available to bring to bear to make this happen. This is one of the most complicated problems that you can imagine to try to resolve. It's not going to be resolved like World War II through a military victory and then figuring out what to do afterwards. There isn't going to be a military victory in any of these places that we're now engaged in. And that's the key message that Americans need to understand. And if we fail to do that, I believe that we as a country and our partners will pay a rather significant and painful price for that failure in the years to come.

Amb. Cunningham: (11:20) That was a master's level explanation on making peace in general, but in particular in Afghanistan. So I couldn't do better than what Jim has said except I would add one other thing. He's gone down the list of those who have equities in the outcome. The one country I would add is Pakistan. Look, we've been friends with Pakistan for many, many years. It's been a troubled relationship for, also many years. We're not going to get peace in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is onboard. This administration and the world community is going to have to make the decision about how it will treat Pakistan in this process. Pakistan can be part of the solution or it can create an unending problem for all of us in this regard. And I think we're going to need to think very hard, and I've been an advocate for patience with Pakistan over the years, we're going to have to make the decision at some point if Pakistan isn't helpful in this process, what price it is going to pay. Not just with the US relationship, but the global relationship. I would simply say as I have spoken with my friends from Pakistan, this is your chance to end that war, which by the way, if you do, if you help the West end that war, you've got an active insurgency going on in every one of your provinces. The federally administered tribal areas is an open sore, which continues to disrupt the settled areas and the Punjab. You can get this right and you can help us out on this and be part of the solution or this can go very badly for you, and my hope would be that the Pakistani leadership and the military leadership would see it's now their time to become a factor in the long term outcome that favors everyone's interests.

Amb. McCarthy: (12:53) You've mentioned that for many years, both our diplomats and our military and our other services have worked side by side and there are many lessons learned from our time in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you sense that these lessons are being incorporated into leadership training today?

Gen. Allen: (13:11) I hope so. I have the opportunity to, the Army has asked me, very kindly, to meet with their young general officers, brigadiers and major generals. It's interesting, almost all of them in the last several years have served for me in Afghanistan or someplace. And I spend a lot of time talking to them about not only their personal obligation, their personal need to continue the process of developing their cultural intelligence and the understanding of the cultures in which we will be serving and for whom we will seek to make a difference in those nations. We've got to understand the basis of those cultures and it starts with that kind of leadership. The strength of our leadership, instruction, and training remains very good within our services. But you know, I would see a unit that would appear in Afghanistan and I could tell in an instant in their performance in the battlespace whether they were actually ready, whether they knew the Afghans, whether they understood the environment in which they were operating. And it's just not possible to overstate how important those kinds of lessons are. We have moved into a period of what is often called in Washington, the moment of great power competition. So we focus on the Chinese and we focus on the Russians. And to an extent, there's certainly something to that. But there is enormous instability in the developing world still. There has been no real diminution of the causal factors that radicalize millions of young people in the world today, and those radicalized populations end up going into the arms of extremists and becoming terrorists or insurgents. So there's no end to the need for us to be intellectually ready to deal with this issue. So yes, we have to be ready to fight at the high end of the conflict spectrum. The chances are very great that we're going to continue to have to be ready for insurgency and terrorism for a long time to come, because in the end, the global community has not really remedied those human causal factors that have disenfranchised so many people around the world.

Amb. Cunningham: (15:10) When I hear now that often repeated phrase, endless war or forever war, what we need is a better and more honest conversation with the American people about what the nature of the problem is that we're dealing with, what the nature of the security threat is. Being tired of dealing with the problem is not a solution. Labeling it, saying, "I'm tired of this endless war," and I'm not making a political point here. This is turning up more and more in newspaper articles and as a shorthand for Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq. Fatigue is not a solution. What fatigue produces is, you stop making the effort to deal with it and you pretend it's not an issue and in a little while it's going to be a much bigger issue. One of the first conversations I had with one of President Obama's senior advisors when I went to Afghanistan was about the withdrawal schedule from Afghanistan, and I said, look, please keep in mind it's a lot easier to withdraw than it is to withdraw and go back when you realize you've got it wrong. We have seen that in Iraq before. We came close to seeing it in Afghanistan and now the specter is being raised again in Syria and Afghanistan. We have to find a way of having a rational conversation about what it is we as a nation, again together with all these partners that we have who want to do this with us, we have a rational conversation about what the nature of the threat is and how to deal with it and that may take generations. I was the ambassador to the UN on 9/11. On 9/12 I brought my staff together and I said, "what happened yesterday is going to change the way that we diplomats to our work for generations. This is a generational issue. It's not something that can be solved in any near term," and I still believe that, in spades. I still believe it. And we have to prepare the American people and what I call the civilized world for a struggle. It's going to last for a long time, whether it's a military struggle or a political struggle, ideological struggle, a cultural struggle, a religious struggle. It's in our laps and if we pretend it's not there, it will bite us in ways that will be very painful. We ought to be having that conversation instead of the wrong conversations about how long are we going to stay at this? I grew up during the cold war. I don't recall people going around and saying, "we're tired of facing down the Soviet Union. We're tired of objecting and struggling against communism around the world," which dominated the first three quarters of my career. People didn't say, "we're tired of this and we're going to go home and let the Soviets and the Chinese have their way, let communism have its way." And a lot of people were killed during the cold in various places and various hot phases. We had an understanding then about what our longterm interest and with a long term role of our country was and had to be. We need to have that same kind of understanding again now.

Gen. Allen: (18:02) Well I can't add to that, but for the listeners, the diplomat was pounding on the table as he was saying that. So those are all exclamation points.

Amb. McCarthy: (18:09) And the other diplomat was nodding vigorously here.

Gen. Allen: (18:11) That's right. That's right.

Amb. McCarthy: (18:12) Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you, first of all for your leadership and your partnership that you have had for many years. And also most of all to thank you for emphasizing your belief that our country needs to continue to be engaged globally for its own protection. Thank you.

Gen. Allen: (18:33) Thank you.

Amb. Cunningham: (18:33) Thank you very much.

Gen. Allen: (18:35) Jim. Great to be with you.

Amb. Cunningham: (18:36) Good to see you.